Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Four: Bleeding Heart

We come now to the fourth chapter of my science fantasy epic, Rage of the Old Gods. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you missed the last chapter, go check it out now.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. EdwardsAs part one comes to its close, Leha returns to Barria to meet the threat of the resurgent Old Gods, but she finds she may already be too late. The age of humanity is coming to a close.


Chapter Four: Bleeding Heart

Across the world of Barria, the nations of humanity found themselves at war. Not a war with their neighboring humans as they were familiar, but a war with the machines they had thought nothing but tools. In the confusion, few even understood the source of the attack, and city after city burned in the ensuing chaos.

* * *

The cry rang through the marbled halls of the palace. “They’re getting closer!”

Prince Tyrom, the young monarch of Pira, felt the floor shiver with the distant rumble of the Automaton assault. He looked at the panicked eyes of his advisors and chamberlains, seeing the confusion he felt reflected in them.

“We have to go,” one said.

Tyrom remembered what he had seen from the balcony: Automatons running unchecked, shattering the ancient city of Pallenia like discarded crockery. It broke his heart to say it, but he agreed. “Signal the evacuation. We head for the sea.”

Pages bolted away to spread the word. The Piran capitol, the last remnant of the Jansian Empire, had broken before its own Automatons.

He did not understand. This had to be some devious attack, but who would attack Pira? They were the inheritors of Jansia’s culture, but the empire’s power had long since faded. They were no threat to anyone.

It made no sense.

Surrounded by a knot of guards and courtiers, he made his way out of the palace. The night was black as pitch, the stars obscured by the ever-present Piran drizzle. He spared a glance back at the graceful curves of the palace, thinking of all the works of art, all the history, he was leaving behind. All about to be crushed by machines he himself had commissioned.

Amidst the rain, the tears trickling down his cheeks went unnoticed.

* * *

In all her career as a soldier, Natoma, guard captain of Uranna’s Nettoh Province, had never encountered a problem she couldn’t solve. She had never faced a challenge she could not overcome.

Until tonight.

Her Automatons, the garrison of machines she was supposed to use to defend her province, had attacked. She did not know why. But that was a question for later.

As her soldiers shouted in terror and confusion, she took to the field with a calm stride. She cried her instructions in a clear, measured voice, and in so doing, she imposed order upon the chaos. She rallied her troops to stand against the rampaging iron titans, and they fought with all their hearts to keep the machines from breaking out of the compound and into the surrounding city.

It wasn’t enough. Neither her calm, nor her soldiers’ bravery, nor their combined might was enough to keep the Automatons in check, and they shattered the walls of the barracks to charge into the streets, laying waste to all they found.

Natoma and her soldiers pursued, following the path of rubble and broken bodies left by the machines. She fought with everything she had, but her soldiers continued to fall, and the Automaton advance continued unabated.

The sense of defeat was nauseating and unlike anything she had felt before. She reeled in horror as she utterly failed to defend her people.

Natoma had never faced a challenge she couldn’t overcome. She had never felt powerless.

Until tonight.

* * *

In the woods of western Tor Som, Yarnig Tor Lannis, whose father had been emperor but whose family would not be crowned again by the cycle of Tor politics for another two generations, sat upon the veranda of his country home and fiddled with his pencils, sketching a songbird roosting in a nearby tree.

This is where he had come to seek peace, away from the bustle of the capitol and the battle-hungry rhetoric of the ruling Tor Vargis family. He had no love for the bloodlust that Empress Tor Vargis had instilled in his people, who were already imagining how fat they would become off the spoils of the conquest of Eastenhold. And so he had come here, to the peace of his family’s country estate, to escape the frenzy of the war effort.

But it seemed escape was not to be his. The rumble of hooves echoed from down the road, startling the songbird from its perch. As Yarnig put down his sketch, youthful brow furrowing, a messenger charged through the gate and into the courtyard of his home, reining his horse to a halt.

The man was disheveled, his face sweaty and streaked with ash, and he all but fell off his horse. Yarnig stood and called the servants to see to the man, already knowing something was terribly wrong.

The exhausted messenger sketched a rough bow, gasping for breath. “Emperor Tor Lannis,” he managed to choke out.

Yarnig’s blood froze.

* * *

The platform creaked under Leha and Doga’s weight as they landed. Leha wiped sweat from her brow; the weather had changed back to hot and sunny while they had been in the cave.

An elderly Lost One looked up at their arrival, saw the silver disc in Leha’s hands, and yelled out, “They did it! They did it!”

Lost Ones flooded from the huts and trees, forming a mob around her and Doga. They were peppered with congratulations, praise, and eager questions until Sheen stepped to the fore and gestured for silence.

A broad smile split the elder’s wrinkled face. “I did not think you could do it, but you did.” She turned to her people. “The last God has been slain by these heroes! This is a time for celebration!”

The crowd cheered.

Leha held up a hand. “No.”

Sheen peered back at her. “No?”

“It is not a time for celebration.” Her voice lowered shamefully, she told them of the Automatons and her discovery of their true nature. As she spoke, the Lost Ones lost their jubilant expressions. Their joyful faces turned grim. Some seemed afraid, others angry.

She finished by saying, “I believe the Tors have finally restored the Automatons to the level of power they held before the Liberation. I need to deliver this knowledge to Barria before they have a chance to organize a strike against humanity.”

The Lost Ones were left speechless.

A bird sang in the distance. It seemed far too beautiful to exist in such a dark moment.

Elder Sheen cleared her throat and spoke in a voice that shook slightly. “The spell is dangerous, and I do not know if we can break the seal on Barria, but we will do what we can. The Gods have returned, and it is our duty to do whatever we can to fight them.” The elder paused, and added, “We will send some of our warriors with you, to help in the battles to come.” Sheen called for volunteers and selected fifteen men and women. Doga was among them.

At that moment, Leha realized for the first time that there would be battles. Even if humanity struck first, war would be inevitable. The first war between humanity and the Old Gods had devastated Barria and spilled over onto Tyzu and Sy’om. What might the second bring?

The crowd dispersed. Some went to prepare for the trip to Barria; others tried to return to their lives.

Leha took Sheen aside. They sat near the edge of the platform, in the cool shade of a tree. “There’s something I have to talk to you about,” Leha said. She explained about her new powers.

The elder leaned back in thought. “I have never heard of anything like this. I would guess that it is a result of the changes we wrought in you – the fact that, in you, we combined two worlds. Are you experiencing any negative symptoms?”

Leha shook her head.

“Then I would take this as a blessing. It may prove to be a powerful weapon against the Gods. It might even help us break through the seal on Barria. If you alter your energy, and the energy of those we send with you, to the level of Barria, it may make the difference.”

Leha bowed her head respectfully. “Thank you, Elder. I’ll try.”

Sheen stood slowly, her joints protesting. “Now, I must prepare for the spell.”

Leha said goodbye to her and settled in to wait, trying not to think about the trials to come.

* * *

An hour later, Leha, the warriors that would accompany her, Sheen and the Watching Eye’s two other wizards, and a mob of curious Lost Ones – nearly the entire clan – descended to a shady glade smelling of earth and flowers. The canopy blocked much of the sun’s rays, making the patch of forest where they settled refreshingly cool – compared to the rest of Tyzu.

Leha and the warriors gathered in the center of the glade, and the wizards formed a circle around them. The onlookers made up a second, wider circle.

Leha did a mental check of her gear and signaled her readiness.

Elder Sheen said, “We will spread word of the Gods’ return. Should you break the seal on Barria, the clans of Tyzu will be ready to aid you.”

“Thank you,” Leha said, bowing her head gratefully.

Next to her, Doga’s mouth set into a grim line. “All my life, I have dreamed of returning to our original homeworld. I wish it were under different circumstances,” he said quietly.

Sheen raised the silver disc, Leha summoned the power of Barria, and the spell began. The wizards sweated and grimaced with the effort. Flashes and crackles of energy flickered through the air, and odd sensations slithered across Leha’s skin.

With a brilliant flash and a burst of thunder, she and her companions entered the space between worlds.

The third time was different. She felt as if she had been hurled into the heart of a tempest. Currents of energy buffeted her, and her nerves tingled with strange powers. Bangs, sizzles, and noises without names assaulted her ears. Her body flashed between heat and icy cold.

The torrent reached a climax. Her body burned with energy until it seemed she was on the brink of being fried alive. She felt as if her body was being repeatedly turned inside out and then righted again. Her heart hammered in terror, but she wasn’t sure the sensation was coming from inside her chest anymore. She would have screamed if she could.

Then, her feet touched ground.

* * *

The air stank of smoke and spilt blood. Drogin crawled across the debris-strewn floor of the attic, making his way to the hole in the roof. Screams, battle cries, bangs of magic, the clash of arms, and the roar of fires assaulted his ears. Splinters caught in his blood-soaked clothing and jabbed at his sweat-drenched skin.

He looked out at the ruins of Heart. Corpses littered the streets. More than half the city was wrecked or burning, and the sky, choked with clouds and ash, reflected an eerie red light. A wave of dust and smoke, lit by flashes of magic, told him the Automatons were approaching.

“They’re getting closer,” he warned.

Eranna, a Tor soldier with a tall stature and blue eyes, joined him in gazing at the approaching machines. She muttered something in her own tongue. Her platinum hair was kept in an intricate braid, and her face had a sullen, humorless cast.

The last two and a half weeks had seen some of the bloodiest fighting in history. The people of Eastenhold had fought with the ferocity of desperation, making the Tors pay dearly for every inch of land. But the Wizard-Automatons had proven too great an advantage, and the Eastenholders had been pushed back to the capitol.

The battle for Heart had gone on for three terrifying, sleepless days and nights. Now, the sun had risen on the fourth day, bringing a faint lessening of the ashen darkness. Drogin glanced at it and thought back to the first day, the last time that his life had made any sense, the last time it had been as simple as Tor versus Eastenholder. Part of him almost missed it.

At dawn of the second day, as both sides had fought exhaustion and each other in vicious battles, the Automatons had turned on their masters. Now, the machines of both armies roved through the city, destroying everything and killing any human they found.

In places, troops from the two nations had banded together for survival. Drogin and Eranna led one such group. In his mind, with the machines destroying everything in sight, any human was a potential ally. The Tors had done terrible things, but even that was nothing compared to what the unleashed Automatons were perpetrating.

In other parts of the city, the war continued, and the two peoples killed each other still.

Drogin had never imagined such destruction.

“We should go,” Eranna said, speaking heavily accented Eastenholder.

“Yeah,” he said, pulling out his wand. He crawled across the low attic and went down the stairs to the main floor of the house, followed by Eranna, another Tor foot soldier, and three Eastenholder warriors.

They left through the back door and pounded down a street book-ended by roaring fires. The heat stung Drogin’s skin. They reached a crossroads, and Drogin hesitated, unsure of what direction to take.

“That street leads to the granaries. If they haven’t already been stripped bare, we might be able to find food there,” a member of Heart’s garrison said, pointing to the left.

None of them had eaten in more than a day. They went left.

Drogin had never been more exhausted in his entire life, but he forced himself to go on, his legs protesting every stride. He kept his wand pointed outward, and his tired eyes searched for danger. This section of the city, the southeast quarter, had seen less fighting, but that didn’t mean that they were safe.

A group of odd-looking people appeared from a side street ahead. When Drogin saw who led them, his heart did a somersault.

“Leha!” Finding new strength, he shot forward and swept her into a hug, lifting her off her feet.

“Drogin.” She hugged him back. She felt different than he remembered. She was thinner, but also more muscular. She now had the wiry body of an athlete.

He put her down and held her at arm’s length. “How are you? How was your journey? How did you get back?” He noticed her pupils, and his smile faded. “What happened to your eyes?”

She brushed away his arms. His alarm grew as he noticed what appeared to be claws on her fingers, but her sleeves hung down to cover her hands, and she spoke before he could ask her about them. “It’s a very long story. What’s happened here?” Her eyes held a fierceness he didn’t recognize.

He looked at the ruined city around them. “I wish I knew. The Automatons have gone berserk. They’re killing everyone. Tor, Eastenholder, everyone.”

Leha swore, but there was more sadness than anger in her voice. She took another look around the city, the last holdout of their nation, and saw the nightmare it had become, and for a moment, there was an infinite grief in her eyes – still brown in the iris, but now indigo in the pupil.

Then, she put on a mask of determination, and the fierce gleam returned. “When I was on Tyzu, I fought one of the Old Gods. It had survived since the Liberation.” She looked him in the eye. “It was an Automaton. The Automatons and the Old Gods are the same. Wizard Vorren didn’t invent them; he rebuilt them.”

Drogin gaped at her. “How is that possible? They’re machines! They can’t be the creator race.”

Leha shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe they were created by another, older race. The point is that they made us, we overthrew them, and now they want to go back to the way things were. We have to stop them.”

Drogin took a step back, covering his face with his hands and hoping he wouldn’t cry. His whole world was coming apart. That the Automatons he had worked on for his entire adult life could be the same as the Old Gods was madness. But the world seemed to have gone mad. Perhaps it was true.

He suddenly felt very, very tired.

Dropping his hands, he noticed, for the first time, the orange-skinned creatures accompanying Leha, and the tense standoff between them and his own companions. He ran his fingers through his hair. What now?

“Who are these?” he asked her, indicating the aliens. He almost asked what they were, but their hard expressions cautioned him to politeness.

Leha managed a weak smile. “Their people are called the Lost Ones; they are the descendants of humans who were trapped on Tyzu when Barria was sealed. They’re here to help us.”

Drogin eyed their alien visages and claws – claws like those he thought he’d spotted on Leha. “They’re friendly,” he told his companions, though he continued to study their skull-like faces and armored skin.

Leha’s expression became serious again. “The Lost Ones did something to me – ”

Drogin’s grip on his wand tightened, the hot magic building within him, ready to strike out against any who would harm his sister. “What did they do?”

“No, it’s nothing bad. They changed me.” She held up a hand. His earlier impression had been correct; each finger now ended in a jagged spike, and he took an involuntary step back. “I can do things now – things no one else can. I think I can stop the Automatons, but I need to be close to them. I need to get to the battle.”

A sudden gust of smoke burned his eyes and made him keel over, coughing. When he straightened, he wheezed, “You?”

She frowned impatiently. “Yes, me.” She pulled a knife from her belt and hurled it. It flew with greater speed than he had thought possible and carved a chunk from a nearby wall, a stone one, with a loud crack.

Drogin’s face lost its color.

“Okay, we’ll go.” He looked back at his companions. They stared at Leha with wide eyes. “Anyone against fighting the machines?”

They looked at each other. None of them seemed inclined to object. It’s not as if we have a better option.

He turned back to her. “All right.”

She was already off.

He followed uneasily. His group shot glances at the savage-looking Lost Ones, and none with more suspicion in their gaze than Drogin.

Leha had always been confident and fond of the occasional risk, but now she seemed downright reckless, and there was an edge to her, a feral lust when she spoke of fighting, that seemed utterly alien. Even more than her claws, her eyes, or her reshaped body, this change disturbed him. He couldn’t imagine what had changed her so much in so short a time.

Nothing made sense anymore, he thought, dejected.

* * *

The smoke was everywhere, but it wasn’t the source of the tears blurring Leha’s vision – she had changed herself so it would stop burning her eyes, nose, and throat. Her nation had been destroyed, her people slaughtered, and her land ravaged. But she could not allow herself anger. If humanity lost this first battle with the Automatons, they might never recover. And to win, they had to be united. Tor and Eastenholder would have to put aside their differences.

She swallowed to dispel the lump in her throat, trying not to give into fear or despair.

It wasn’t hard to find the Automatons. They simply had to follow the screams, roars, and crashes that followed the machines wherever they went.

They entered a broad square with a fountain at its center. Its trickling provided a surreal counterpoint to the thunder all around them.

With a bone-shaking smash and a great clanging of metal, an Automaton burst through a building on the opposite side of the square, spraying dust and rubble across the flagstones. Judging by its round edges and relatively short stature, the Automaton was of Eastenholder design.

Leha flooded the flying debris and the Automaton with the energy of Sy’om, giving her allies time to avoid the stone projectiles. She grabbed one of the slow-motion rocks and swung it back toward the Automaton. As she did so, she infused it with the energy of Tyzu.

It smacked against the machine’s head, ringing it like a gong. She sped the Automaton up to Tyzu’s speed, and it slammed into the rubble of the building it had destroyed, landing on its back.

Returning it to Sy’om’s energy and giving herself the power of Tyzu, she leapt across the square and landed on its chest. She ran forward and tried to pull at its neck plates, but this Automaton was in far better condition than the one on Tyzu had been, and she could not yank them free.

Her allies swarmed around the fallen machine and attacked it any way they could. The Lost Ones used hatchets and claws to tear off pieces of armor. The Barrian soldiers had already found weapons, such as warhammers and large axes, strong enough to be effective on Automatons and were using them to smash at its joints. The air rung with their blows. Drogin wielded his magic to cut into its shoulder joints at the armpits, where it had no lead plating.

Leha clawed at its neck plates, trying to find a weak spot. The machine remained in slow-motion, but soon, its arms would arrive to crush her. Remembering how effective the acid-filled anti-Automaton bolts could be against the machines, she switched her venom glands back on and charged them with producing acid to eat through lead and steel.

Blinding pain shot through her fingers as the acid slid down her claws. She forced them to build an immunity, gritting her teeth through the fiery pain.

A drop of vile, yellow liquid dripped from a claw. It sizzled and burned on contact with the Automaton’s skin, sending acrid smoke into Leha’s nose. She grinned, feeling a strange and savage pleasure, and attacked the bolts holding the neck plates in place. You’re mine now.

The fastenings dissolved under her assault. She ripped the plates away and squirmed inside the Automaton, just as its hands clapped around its neck.

After the heat of the burning city, the cool of the machine’s interior felt refreshing. She wriggled up its neck, cutting through any struts in her way, and into its head. She grabbed its artificial mind, a globe-shaped matrix of silver set with pieces of quartz, and wrested it from its housing.

The Automaton shuddered and died. She heard its arms fall away from the opening in its neck.

She crawled out of the machine. Her companions were clustered around it, panting and trying to rest.

Drogin stepped forward and said, “How did you do that?” His face hung slack with something like awe – or fear.

“Which part?” she replied, breathing heavily.

“All of it.”

She slid off the still Automaton and walked towards the fountain. “It’s complicated. I don’t fully understand it either.” Reaching the fountain, she drank deeply from its basin. The water tasted of ash and dust. Once her thirst was quenched, she added, “I promise I’ll explain things when we’re in a little less danger, okay?”

Without another word, she turned and headed northwest, where the sounds of battle were the strongest. Some unspoken agreement had made her the leader of their group, and Drogin, the Lost Ones, and the Tor and Eastenholder soldiers followed.

As they headed west, approaching the part of the city where the fighting had been heaviest, the destruction became more complete. In some places, entire city blocks had been leveled by fire or machinery. More and more bodies lay in the streets. The sight of them, and the smell, made Leha gag and reminded her that, despite her new powers, she was no warrior.

The thunder of battle grew louder. The clouds reflected flashes of green-white magic.

They climbed a pile of rubble in a particularly ravaged section of Heart. Leha’s eyes widened as she beheld what lay beyond, and she nearly threw up.

What had been an open-air market lay before them. The buildings around it had been smashed and burned, and bodies blanketed it. The earth was stained with old blood, and the bodies had begun to rot, filling the air with a fetid stench.

It was easy enough to see what had happened. Tor and Eastenholder forces had clashed, creating the bodies with gut wounds, missing limbs, and slashed throats. Then the Automatons had come and, with the humans too busy killing each other to mount a defense, slaughtered both sides, creating bodies that were crushed, broken, or torn into chunks.

Leha held her sleeve to her nose. “Can we go around?”

Drogin came up beside her, sending pieces of broken brick clattering deeper into the pile. He looked around. “Not easily. We’d have to take a pretty wide detour to avoid the more impassable rubble piles.”

She gave a shuddering sigh. “Let’s go.”

Gingerly, they stepped down into the market. The smell was even worse up close.

As they walked, they surveyed the horrors around them.

“The power of the Gods is truly terrible,” Doga said, walking awkwardly in Barria’s relatively low energy. His eyes were wide with awe, and his voice quivered with a fear Leha would not have expected from him.

“Yes,” she responded, speaking the Lost One tongue. Drogin looked at her oddly.

She knelt beside the body of an Eastenholder warrior, a young woman around her age. “But it is not the most terrible of things,” she whispered, looking at the Tor bolt that had pierced the woman’s neck.

She peered around the market. She couldn’t help but think that many of these people may have survived the Automatons if they had worked together.

She remembered the Lost Ones’ abhorrence of conflict between humans. She recalled the harmonious lives of Sy’om’s ice creatures. She knew then that unity was humanity’s only chance for survival.

She could think of just one way to achieve it. Focusing on her memories of Sy’om, filling her mind with images of glaciers and caves, she sent her consciousness across the worlds. She sought a creature both gentle and kind, a creature who had saved her once before.

Leha? Benefactor said, his jaw twitching in astonishment.

She flooded him with a wash of memories, wordlessly explaining everything that had happened since she had left him. Underlying it all was a sense of need and urgency, an unspoken plea for assistance.

He reeled for a moment. She could sense him clutching his head as he processed the knowledge she had given to him.

He regained control and said, I will help you.

She felt a tug at the back of her mind, and then a sense of presence within her head.

Her perception expanded, and she felt the minds of her companions – like whispers in another room. If she concentrated on one of them, she could hear their thoughts clearly.

With the aid of Benefactor, her consciousness stretched across a broad section of the city. She could feel the thoughts of hundreds of people. Some fought; others hid; all feared for their lives.

She sent a burst of fellowship to each and every person within range, communicating the knowledge that they were all human, of a single race, and that their only hope of survival was to come together.

For a moment, some resisted. Tors and Eastenholders recoiled in horror at the feeling of connection with their enemies. But then the link deepened beyond the petty hates they had learned in their lives, to the base of what made them human – the same basic hopes and desires. In the concord of the telepathic link, there was no room for hate, doubt, or fear.

An expression of serenity on her face, Leha rose to her feet and walked out of the market. Her companions followed. Each bore the suggestion of a smile.

A cool mountain breeze blew across their faces, dispelling the reek of the dead and bringing with it the scent of ice.

As they walked ever closer to the rage of the front lines, soldiers of Tor Som and Eastenhold joined them. First there were few, then their numbers blossomed to dozens, and finally they became several hundred strong. Without a single spoken word or instruction, they organized themselves into ranks and marched together, Leha at their head. Save for the clank of armor and the clap of footfalls, their army was silent.

They came to a place where three Tor-built Automatons were tearing apart an inn, and attacked.

Battle wizards lashed out with fingers of scorching energy, aiming for where the machines’ lead armor was weak or nonexistent. Crossbowmen fired anti-Automaton bolts, filling the air with stinging smoke. Foot soldiers battered the machines with warhammers, swords, axes, and whatever else they could find. The Lost Ones accepted metal-tipped spears from their Tor cousins and hurled them, Leha imbuing the missiles with the energy of Tyzu so that they struck with the force of ballista bolts.

Leha stood behind and watched her people battle in perfect harmony with each other. She thought it was beautiful.

Whenever someone was injured, the others would sense it immediately and swoop in to protect them. Leha would inundate their wounds with the powers of the world spectrum, using Tyzu’s speed to knit smaller wounds quickly and slowing the bleeding of major wounds with Sy’om’s energy.

The Automatons, slowed by Leha, were swamped by the humans’ superior numbers. It was not long before they fell.

Leha’s small army paused to tend their wounded before moving on. Silent during the battle, now many of them cried out or moaned in agony. Their pain was transmitted to all within the link, but though it spread their suffering, it also provided comfort. Each injured fighter felt the compassion of hundreds, and though some succumbed to their wounds, slipping out of the link and leaving hollow voids behind in the minds of their comrades, they did so knowing they had given their lives for something greater than nations. They had died for humanity.

* * *

They resumed their journey towards the main group of Automatons – as silent as ever. They made their way through the broken city, the noise of the Automatons growing ever louder. They came to a square surrounded by relatively intact buildings, and everything suddenly went quiet.

They stopped. Leha looked around her. I don’t like this.

Benefactor asked, Where is the sound?

I don’t know, she replied.

People raised their weapons nervously.

The buildings all around them exploded.

Before she could do anything, a piece of rubble struck her in the head. Pain clanged through her skull and she fell to the ground. The air filled with sound, virtually deafening her.

She got to her feet, trying to clear her thoughts. At least two-dozen Automatons had attacked and were ripping their way through her force. People were screaming and dying. The flying rubble alone had killed many. The battle wizards fought a losing battle, struggling to hold off magical attacks by a pair of Wizard-Automatons. Blinding energy crackled and boomed above the heads of the combatants.

Leha summoned the power of Sy’om and used it to slow the machines, but the damage had been done. Nearly half of her soldiers had been killed already, and though Sy’om’s energy weakened their magic, nothing could stop the Wizard-Automatons.

She felt victory slipping away. No amount of telepathic connection could reorganize her troops. The terror of hundreds shrieked through her mind. She ran for one of the Wizard-Automatons, planning to attack it with her claws.

With a slowness that had less to do with low energy than it did with arrogance, it turned to her, raised its hand, and unleashed a blast of magic. Something knocked her aside, but it still scorched her clothes, burned her skin, and incinerated people around her. As she hit the street, she bit her lip and tasted blood.

Drogin, the one who had saved her, rushed to her side and grabbed her arm. “We have to get out of here!” he shouted. He had appropriated a battle wizard’s silver-plated staff.

Leha shook away his arm and directed Tyzu’s energy into healing her various aches and burns. “No!”

He looked at the Wizard-Automaton; it had returned its attention to annihilating the rest of her army. “We can’t stop them. They’re machines. No wizard can channel as much energy as them. No soldier can fight them.”

She watched it burn a squad of Tor soldiers, feeling every death within herself. “No. No one can equal them.” She reached out and held her brother’s hand, linking their minds more closely than she had with anyone else. We can’t run. They’ll find us eventually. We have to stop them now, she told him.

We can’t win, he sent.

Within each other’s minds, the shrieking chaos around them, the scent of burning bodies, and the pain of their various injuries seemed far away.

Leha’s expression softened. We can’t, but they can. She sent to him a package of thoughts and memories – including a memory of Sheen talking about the danger of Tyzu’s energy.

Drogin, understanding her plan, shook his head. I can’t do it. I’ll be killed.

I won’t let you die, she said.

You must do it, Drogin. The Rock Gods need to be destroyed, Benefactor said.

Drogin did not know him, but his trustworthiness was evident in the telepathic link. Drogin nodded. Okay, I’ll do it.

They emerged from their telepathic refuge.

Leha looked at the Wizard-Automaton and hurled a rock at it. “Face me, you coward!”

It turned on her angrily and raised its fist. As it struck, she infused it with Tyzu’s power. The magic flared to more than twice its previous intensity.

Drogin raised his staff, drew the attack to it, and sent the magic back to the Automaton. The light burned Leha’s eyes. She feared she would be blinded, but if that was the price she had to pay, then she would pay it. The magic formed an oval arc between the machine and Drogin, pulsing and searing in a burning cycle. She placed her hands on his left arm and used Sy’om’s low energy to stop the magic from overwhelming him. Even so, he screamed in pain.

She screamed in sympathy.

Her entire world reduced itself to the earth-shaking rush, eye-stinging light, and burning heat of the magical loop.

With an explosion like a thousand thunderclaps, the link broke, and they were hurled backwards to collide with the remnant of a broken wall.

The light vanished. The battlefield went quiet.

Trying to ignore the pain in her back, Leha sat up and blinked her eyes. If she squinted, she could barely see a pile of molten slag where the Wizard-Automaton had been.

The Earth rattled under heavy footfalls. The Automatons were attempting to flee. She didn’t know if machines could feel fear, but they looked terrified.

“You better run!” she cried, though she could not have offered even token resistance. She returned them to Barria’s energy and allowed them to leave.

Drogin had collapsed. She rushed to check his pulse.

He was alive.

She breathed a sigh of relief.

“We did it,” she whispered, as much to herself as to him, hugging his limp form and kissing him on the cheek.

The voice of her benefactor tickled the back of her mind. Leha, I am tired. I have to leave soon.

Just one more thing, she sent. Holding his shoulder, she spoke into Drogin’s mind. Drogin, I don’t know if you can hear me, but we won. She thought his lips twitched in response, but she couldn’t be sure. Rest well, my brother.

* * *

Drogin groaned, waking Leha from her doze. She clutched his hand and peered down at him as he opened his eyes.

“Leha?” he said, blinking.

“I’m here.”

“Where are we?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“A home. It used to belong to a wealthy merchant. There’s an Automaton-shaped hole in the east wing, but the rest of it is intact. We’ve been using it as an infirmary.”

He tried, and failed, to sit up in his makeshift bed. “What happened?”

Leha brushed hair from her eyes. “Our plan worked. The Automaton was destroyed by its own power. I think the rest of the machines were frightened by what we did. They all fled.” Her eyes sparkled with pride as she added. “It was very brave, what you did.”

He shook his hand free, and this time, he did sit up.

She gave him a mug of tea full of medicinal herbs. Its earthy scent filled the air.

He sipped it. “They’ll be back.”

Leha’s face lost some of its cheer. “Yes, but at least we’ve shown them, and our people, that they can be beat. This was an important victory.”

Drogin made a growling noise. “I feel terrible.”

She swabbed his brow with a cool rag. “The physicians are amazed you survived. They said what you did could have killed a wizard with twice your power.”

“It must have been whatever you did that saved me,” he said.

She noticed him eyeing her claws with an expression of suspicion or concern – she couldn’t tell which. She tried hiding them by putting her hands in her pockets, but found that they didn’t fit anymore.

He combed his hair with his fingers. “Leha, what happened to you on Tyzu?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” she said.

“Tell me.”

She got up, added more wood to the room’s fireplace, returned to his side, and told him.


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